Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on August 21, 2006

My friend Lonnie put me onto an occasional feature in Slate called “The Good Word,” which I have put on my blogroll as a linguistics blog, since its content seemed to fit there best. Some of the pieces I’ve liked have been about offensive language. The most recent of them is Seth Stevenson’s defense of suck, even though I don’t agree with him that the word has entirely lost its oral-sex-related meaning. Maybe it has for some younger speakers, but for anyone who says something “sucks dick” to indicate that it really sucks, at least some of the original meaning is there. Then there’s Jesse Sheidlower’s piece on scumbag, whose etymology surprised me. He pokes around at the question of what makes a word vulgar. Is it vulgar if it has a vulgar origin but people don’t realize it (like some users of suck)? What if people think it has a vulgar origin but it doesn’t? Finally there’s John Cook’s discussion of retarded, which includes a funny quotation from the very doctor who diagnosed Adam with PDD-NOS.

Meanwhile, on Language Log, Geoff Pullum has written about something I’ve been meaning to write about for months, but never got around to. Here is a sentence from a semantics paper by Daniel Rothschild of Princeton University:

“The F is G” is true just in case there is exactly one F and it satisfies G. (link)

If your grammar is like mine (and everyone else’s I know), you read that and said, “What? How can something be true in order to be prepared in the event that ‘there is exactly one F and it satisfies G’? That sounds like you’re choosing for it to be true, but either it’s true or it’s not, right?” But after you read a few more papers in formal linguistics that use just in case the same way, you get so you can mentally replace just in case with only in the case where and move on. Read Pullum’s thoughts on the matter here.

Here’s one more from Pullum, which I bring up because it’s on one of my favorite topics, backformation. And since we’re on the subject of backformation and it’s time for going back-to-school, here’s a link to a post of my own for those who haven’t been reading this blog since August 2004.

7 Responses to “Linkfest”

  1. I agree that using “just in case” to mean “if and only if” sounds utterly bizarre; the “lest” meaning is the only one I’ve ever encountered until now. Even my college math teachers never treated those phrases as synonyms (yes, the courses I took did include a unit on logic).

  2. I didn’t bat an eye at “just in case” to mean “iff”. [Or “iff.” if you adhere to the American convention, which I, despite being American, do not.] One of my majors was math, and I focused on logic and abstract algebra, where the professors used it regularly. I’ve probably used it myself in proofs, though I’m partial to “iff” because it’s shorter.

    I have the other meaning of “lest” as well, but the contexts are so distinct for me that it’s like the homophony between “latter” and “ladder”–they’re technically the same, but in practice there’s never any confusion.

  3. Neal said

    Just in case doesn’t mean “if and only if” (or its shorter but useful-only-in-written-form version iff); it just means “only if”. In fact, I think the author of the example I chose should have used iff instead of just in case to honor the Q-Principle: iff is more precise than just in case, and is accurate in this sentence. As it stands, the sentence could be true if there were exactly one F and it satisfied G and “The F is G” were still false.

  4. Well, I will admit I’ve always wondered why it doesn’t mean “only if”, because that’s what it “should” mean, but that’s how I’ve seen it used, and that’s what Pullum says it means in the piece you linked to: ‘But in American English as used by those trained in the formal sciences and philosophy… just in case has acquired a new idiomatic sense: “in, and only in, the case where”, or in other words, “if and only if”.’

  5. Neal said

    Hmm, so he does. I should have read more carefully. I guess I didn’t know what linguists meant by the phrase after all. In the particular papers I’ve read where it’s used, I’ve understood that they had in mind “iff,” but always figured they were just being a little bit careless with the wording.

  6. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I remember being puzzled by that usage when I first met it in my early years of university. I soon figured out that it meant “if and only if”, and filled it out meaning “just in [the] case [where]” – i.e., only in that case and not in any others. It still gives me pause when I come across it, though.

  7. Speaking of “back to school”, I wonder if the writer responsible for the latest Dell computer ads reads this blog. The commercial I saw this afternoon described Dell’s willingness to customize computers for anyone in any situation: “for [two prepositional phrases I forget], for going back to school…” I know you’ve got a fondness for collecting miscoordinated sentences. and an aversion to hearing/reading “back to school” as a noun…so I couldn’t resist pointing that example out.

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